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Rabbi Dovid Cohen
Administrative Rabbinical Coordinator of the cRc
Unless otherwise noted, the technical information included in this article is from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “alfalfa” and/or from a phone conversation with Dr. Phil J. Peterson, Area Extension Educator, specializing in Forages, Agronomy and Farming Systems at the Washington State University Extension in Pasco, WA (Franklin & Benton Co.).
For centuries, alfalfa has been one of the world’s great forage crops (grasses fed to animals), because not only can it grow under adverse conditions, but it also grows dark green leaves so quickly that it can be harvested as often as 13 times a year.1 However, while alfalfa contains too much cellulose to be digested by humans, this article will address two ways that its use affects the kosher consumer.
Alfalfa Sprouts for Pesach
Although people cannot eat fully-grown alfalfa, they can gain some of the purported health benefits of consuming boron-rich plants such as alfalfa, by eating alfalfa sprouts. Alfalfa sprouts are produced when the seeds/beans of the alfalfa plant begins growing and develops a 1-2 inch-long sprout. The sprout is a thin, white, grass-like, flexible stalk, which does not contain much cellulose (if any) and does not resemble the fully-grown plant in any way. Each “strand” of alfalfa sprout still has the seed attached to one end, and the seed is split in half.
Rav Schwartz holds that since alfalfa is described as being a “leguminous plant of the pea family” which has “pods containing from two to eight or more seeds”,2 it falls within the category of kitnios, and is therefore forbidden for Ashkenazim on Pesach.3 In fact, the split seed at the end of every alfalfa sprout looks much like any other bean forbidden as kitnios.
Although Rav Schwartz accepts Iggeros Moshe’s position4 that foods which were not consumed at the time the minhag of kitnios began are not forbidden on Pesach and although there is no evidence that humans ate alfalfa sprouts at the time when the minhag of kitnios began, there is also no evidence to the contrary (and alfalfa was surely used for foraging when and where the minhag began). Therefore, since the seeds of alfalfa are basically the same as other beans that are forbidden as kitnios, Rav Schwartz rules that they should not be eaten on Pesach.
However, Rav Schwartz also noted that Yad Yitzchok III:92 rules that only the bean or seed portion of a kitnios food is forbidden, but the stalk and other plant material is not. Therefore, for example, if one would remove the peas from their pod, the pod would be permitted on Pesach and only the peas would be forbidden. As such, Rav Schwartz holds that the bean/seed portion of the overall sprout is forbidden but the stalk-like portion is theoretically permitted on Pesach. Of course, in our case, it is not realistic to remove the beans from a serving of alfalfa sprouts, so for all practical purposes we must rule that alfalfa sprouts are forbidden on Pesach.
Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin
The fully-grown alfalfa plant does have a use in human food consumption, as a source of chlorophyll, a natural green color used to improve the appearance of food (which is also sold as-is for purported health benefits). Alfalfa’s use as a source of chlorophyll is recognized by the FDA, and it is often reacted with other chemicals to create the coloring agent sodium copper chloropyllin. The ingredients and process used in producing these colors is innocuous, and therefore sodium copper chlorophyllin is a Group 1 ingredient.
There is however, another method of producing sodium copper chlorophyllin, from an excretion of the silkworm. Silkworms are obviously not kosher and since excretions of a non-kosher animal are also non-kosher, the question was raised as to whether sodium copper chlorophyllin should not be considered a Group 1 ingredient pending knowledge of whether it was made from alfalfa or silkworms.
However, it seems that this is not truly a kashrus concern because (a) it seems that the chlorophyll is recovered from silkworm excrement,5 and such excretions are acceptable for kosher use as they are deemed inedible (see Bechoros 7b) and (b) it appears that this form of sodium copper chlorophyllin is not recognized as safe by the FDA and legally may not be used in food production,6 such that its kosher status is thus far a moot point. Both of the aforementioned reasons require further clarification, but for now it seems reasonable to consider sodium copper chlorophyllin as a Group 1 ingredient.
1 The latter part of this description led Rav Schwartz to theorize that alfalfa is possibly the aspasta (אספסתא ) discussed numerous times in the Gemara (see for example the description in Rashbam, Bava Basra 28b s.v. aspasta). This may in fact be correct; see this article from American Scientist which says that, “Alfalfa holds the distinction of being the oldest forage crop for which we have a name, yet the etymology of the word is uncertain. It may have arisen from modifications of the Persian aspo-asti (horse fodder), the Arabic al-fasfasa or the Kashmiri ashwa-bal (both meaning horse power).”
2 Encyclopedia Britannica ibid.
3 See a similar position in Siddur Pesach K’hilchaso I:16:3, which lists alfalfa (אספת , the modern Hebrew word for lucerne/alfalfa) as kitnios (but does not cite any sources or Poskim who share his opinion).
4 Iggeros Moshe O.C. III:63.
5 See http://www.iupac.org/publications/pac/2006/pdf/7808×1477.pdf.
6 See http://chaos.fedworld.gov/bxa/whatsnew.cgi/revmissletech.pdf, and the source cited in the previous footnote.
Last reviewed: March 2014